Small Kansas City law firm takes on BP Amoco

Sunday, November 27, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A two-person Kansas City law firm, which won a multimillion-dollar personal injury lawsuit against BP Amoco in September, still has 24 more cases pending against the oil giant.

Attorney Lon Walters' cases against BP Amoco involve people who say they or their relatives became ill after being exposed to oil spills from a refinery in Sugar Creek, a small community east of Kansas City.

Walters and associate Christin Cipolla first took the case of Leonard Ryan, whose wife had died of what some doctors said was leukemia. The jury awarded him $13.3 million in September, and in a settlement, Ryan received an undisclosed amount in punitive damages.

Before taking on the Ryan case, Walters' biggest legal victory had been in a case involving two people injured when their car hit a cow on a road near Paola, Kan. The jury awarded more than $1 million.

Walters took Ryan's case on a referral.

"It was a single case, and I thought that it would be highly unusual if there was only one case in the community," he said.

Standard Oil Co. opened the Sugar Creek refinery in 1904. Since at least the 1940s, some residents told of petroleum fumes entering their homes through basement drains. A petrol fog often hung over the town.

The huge oil refinery was leaking hundreds of millions of gallons of oil and gasoline through a maze of underground pipes. One pipeline alone was leaking 42 gallons per hour.

The leaked petroleum then seeped out of the earth through cracks in the streets and the ground, and bubbled into nearby streams and rivers. Spills also occurred. One sent oil down the Missouri River for 30 miles.

Walters' first case hinged on two arguments. The first was Amoco documents showing the company's knowledge of the health hazards. The second was Walters' challenge to federal and state studies of cancer in the 1990s that showed there were no health hazards from the oil spillages.

Walters told the jury that the study did not go far enough. It did not include many people who had lived in Sugar Creek and moved away, and later got cancer. Amoco remains confident in government studies on health risks at Sugar Creek.

But two more cases against the company are scheduled for next year. The others are not likely to reach court until 2007 or later.

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